Transition 1988: George H.W. Bush


President George H.W. BushThe Reagan to Bush transition has been characterized as a “friendly takeover.” This may have been true at the very top levels, but people I knew who were “on the ground level” in agencies saw it as being more difficult than a changeover between political parties.


Transition planning began almost a year in advance; Chase Untermeyer raised the topic during a Christmas party at the Bush residence and was subsequently asked to explore what needed to be done. No work was begun until April 1988 after the primaries left Bush as the clear candidate. Untermeyer’s work was limited: he was told not to address personnel or policy issues, or White House organizational issues. He was to focus on the stand-up of the transition headquarters and lay out the structure for making personnel and policy decisions during the transition period.

In parallel, President Reagan’s staff undertook efforts for an orderly transition. The director of Presidential Personnel met with Untermeyer on the organization and operation of the Office of Presidential Personnel, going through each department, job-by-job. President Reagan’s chief of staff developed a checklist for the incoming transition team, as well.


President-elect Bush unveiled his key transition team the day after the election. He appointed Craig Fuller (his vice presidential chief of staff) and Robert Teeter (a key campaign strategist) as co-directors, with Untermeyer and C. Boyden Gray as deputies. Untermeyer headed the personnel function and Gray served as legal counsel.

Untermeyer recommended a small transition staff of about 100, but it ultimately grew to about 225 (GSA had prepared office space for 500!). Untermeyer was asked to provide 3-5 names for each cabinet position and 50 state recruiters were encouraged to come up with “fresh faces.”

Because there were no large agency teams, President Reagan’s chief of staff sent out a memo to agency political appointees to provide requested briefing book information. Binders were prepared for incoming cabinet appointees with information about their jobs and advice on proper behavior during the transition period.

Sub-cabinet positions were filled later; the selections were made jointly between the incoming secretary and the White House Office of Presidential Personnel, with the White House office suggesting potential appointees. Lower-level appointments were more highly controlled by Presidential Personnel.

President-elect Bush asked John Sunnunu to be his chief of staff 9 days after the election. Bush had wanted a strong chief of staff, but there was tension among his close associates immediately after the election about who should fill the position. According to media reports, both Fuller and Teeter were opposed to Sunnunu’s selection and chose to not join the new Administration. Instead, they both left after the transition.

In the end, according to historian John Burke, “The president-elect had assembled a cabinet and staff populated with longtime friends, most with a high degree of prior governmental experience.”

*** This story was abstracted from John P. Burke’s book, “Presidential Transitions: From Politics to Practice.” If you were involved in this transition, please feel free to add your stories, as well! ***


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